On the Way to the Living God in Post-Christian Amsterdam

This following are some fragments from the first chapter of my book On the Way to the Living God:

From my apartment in the center of Amsterdam it is just a ten minute walk to the famous, or infamous, Red Light District and another five minutes’ walk to Dam square—the lively heart of the city.

When I speak about Amsterdam as post-Christian Amsterdam, one may be inclined to think especially about the Red Light District, where everything is practiced that God has forbidden in his wisdom. However, this would be a grave mistake. If Christian presence is still visible in the city anywhere, it is in the Red Light District, where many Christian organizations offer facilities for those in need. Here the church is successful in making a difference.

The Dam square is much more characteristic for post-Christian Amsterdam. This vibrant place breathes the idea that life can be good without God. Certainly, the impressive Nieuwe Kerk (“new church,” built since 1380 and rebuilt after 1645) decorates the square, but it is no longer used for regular church services, only for exhibitions and special ceremonies. Actually, it is a living example that in Amsterdam God and the church belong to the past.

In a very subtle way post-Christian Amsterdam is even more tangible in the relatively quiet block where I live. The factual situation is that only a few people go to church, but one little word is usually added: only a few people still go to church. . . .

The Threefold Plausibility Crisis of the Church

In order to be able to move beyond the post-Christian condition, it is, first of all, important to face the fundamental plausibility crisis of the church within this condition. Why is it that the Christian religion is considered to be passé? Why is it that the church is considered to be a remnant of the past rather than a vital option for the future (even by church members themselves)? Why is it, as I observed during a teaching practice several years ago, that a high school student can say in his simplicity that God and Jesus were the great men of the past and that other students also use the past tense when referring to God? In my perception, the plausibility crisis of the church has three dimensions, which I indicate with the triad head, heart, and hands.

Head. The intellectual crisis of the church is that there seems to be no sensible reason to believe that God exists, and especially that he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Moreover, even if it is granted that God may exist, there seems to be no way to say something about him with certainty. This intellectual crisis is not to be understood as if all people are outspoken atheists who willfully take position against Christianity. Of course, such people do exist, but for many people in Amsterdam, Christianity seems to belong to the past so much that they have never felt the need to take position for or against it.

Heart. The existential crisis of the church is that even if people acknowledge that the intellectual discussion does not result in an unfavorable position for the Christian religion, it can still be that they cannot reach it with their heart; they can feel an existential hesitation or doubt that hinders them from believing. It is not to be excluded that this is also the case for church members. They regularly read the Bible, but it does not say much to them; they pray, but they have the feeling that it is talking into emptiness.

Hands. The practical crisis of the church is that she does not succeed in offering a positive morality with which one can make a difference in everyday life. The church seems to take and give between droll morals and permissiveness. A concrete and attractive moral ideal is wanting.

Although this is a very brief analysis of the crisis of the church, it sufficiently indicates that we have to face some fundamental questions if we do not want to end up with a compromise between outdated Christianity and the post-Christian condition, but really hope to find a way beyond the post-Christian condition. . . .

Existential Invitation: Understand the Desire of the Heart as a Desire for the Living God

I take my starting point in Psalm 42:2: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” This verse is an invitation to understand the desire of the human heart as a desire for the living God.

Many people seem to have an unfulfilled desire. This is rather clear for those people who are interested in new religions and philosophies, and probably also for those who indulge themselves in materialistic or sexual excesses, seeking in vain for existential fulfillment. But how about those who indicate that they are rather content with their life? I do not want to project an unfulfilled desire on them. However, it may be that some of them mean that they have stopped hoping for deeper fulfillment, and therefore can be rather content with their life.

On balance, I do not want to argue here that all humans factually have adesiderium naturale for God. I limit myself here to speaking about an invitation to acknowledge an unfulfilled desire in one’s heart and to understand this desire as a desire for the living God. This is what the psalm invites its readers to do. In face of the existential crisis that the Christian beliefs do not really touch the human heart, Psalm 42 exactly begins with the desire of the heart—the soul.

Theological Invitation: Believe in the Living God Only

. . . A second invitation. What does the heart desire for? The soul thirsts for theliving God: the soul cannot be satisfied with a God who does not really exist. Although such a desire does not prove that God exists, it offers a first condition for speaking about God adequately—it must be about a God who really exists. The church must refrain from definitions of God in which he does not really exist (God as a metaphor for inter-human love, God as a character in a story, etc.) and from definitions from which it is rightfully concluded that such a God cannot exist. In her desire for the living God the soul prefers a minimally defined God who exists over a much better defined God who, however, does not exist.

In face of the post-Christian idea that God belongs to the past, the psalm verse [Ps. 42:2] invites us to make a fundamental shift, and to think about God as the one who—by his very definition—is present, actual, and the living God. In face of the atheistic claim that God does not exist, the soul cannot prove that he does exist, but she can thirst for him and does not want to call herself satisfied with anyone or anything less than him. (…)

I am not going as far here as to demonstrate that God does exist. I just remark that it may well be that God is superfluous as an explanation, but that this does not disprove his existence. It only raises the question whether there is even then any sensible reason (I use this term for lack of a better one) to believe in God. I think there is. Although space forbids giving a full elaboration here in this essay, we can take the example of this desire of the heart for the living God. Such a desire can probably be explained psychologically or even biologically. However, this explains the desire; it does not explain it away—the desire remains. Thus, even after explaining it, there remains something in the desire that can be understood as a true reference to God. (…)

In conclusion, the invitation of Psalm 42 stands very strong in the light of atheistic claims. It fully agrees with them that we should not concentrate on a God who is not alive. However, it dares to see the possibility that, whatever gods may not exist, there is the living God who, by his very definition, is the God who does exist. Believing in this God and desiring for this God is not an intellectual activity in itself, but it meets any criteria of intellectual honesty.

Anthropological Invitation: Live on the Way to the Living God

What happens with humans who live from their thirst for the living God? Their lives gain direction. Their lives become lives in via, on the way.

I basically see three manners of living our human life: to stay, to stray, and to be on the way. Many people just stay or stray; these are the easy manners of conducting life. Still, our life can and should be a purpose driven life. We can live towards a goal. That is to be on the way.

However, it is very important to set the right goal. Psalm 42:2 indicates just one goal—the living God. We should not be after any material or spiritual idol, only after the one who, by his very definition, is not an idol, but the living God.

In a sense, the identity of every human is eccentric in God. We know ourselves partially, in our own experience our identity can be fragmentized; we do not know how the different sides of ourselves exactly relate, we are changing over time. Using the image from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, we can experience our identity as an onion—take off layer after layer in search for real identity and in the end nothing is left. However, God knows us fully and deeper than we know ourselves.

Conversion to a life on the way means that our eccentric identity receives a second dimension: we willfully entrust our identity in the hands of God, and by living the life on the way, more and more of that identity becomes already actualized in our lives, until, having arrived at the end of the way and having come to God, we will be who we are face to face with God. Thus, living on the way to become who we are in God is true spiritual growth.

As an old man, Peer Gynt finally asked in despair, “Where was I, as myself, as the whole man, the true man?” Then his love from his youth, Solveig, answers, “In my faith, in my hope, and in my love.” Experiencing himself as an onion, he found himself outside himself in the one who had loved him all the time. Of course, Ibsen idealizes human love. As believers, we may find our true identity in the living God, for whom our hearts desire.

Ethical Invitation: Walk the Way in Love and Liberty

In principle, the idea of living on the way does not only help us to overcome the existential crisis, but also the practical crisis. Living on the way to the living God is a powerful metaphor for a positive moral ideal. In fact, it is the old biblical ideal of loving God with all of one’s capacities.

However, does living on the way not imply a very world-avoiding, even world-denying type of ethics? I would say no. As a traveler I can enjoy and love what I meet on the way. However, I cannot and need not fully bind myself to it. I think that is not a problem, but rather a relief. Conversion to a God-bound life is not giving up one’s liberty, but receiving liberty. Living a God-bound life means living a life in liberty and love towards each other (cf. Gal. 5:13).

The question may be whether I am not much too optimistic so far. First of all, there may be this desire in our heart, and we may be willing to understand this as a desire for the living God, but our heart is not always filled with this desire. Next, the ideal of living on the way with a clear-cut purpose may sound nice, but in the practice of life, it is often difficult to decide which way is to be taken—to discover where the way goes—to see the goal. The question arises whether it is not all nonsense after all.

Such objections should be answered with realism. Having a clear goal does not mean that one is constantly thinking about that goal or that the road is always clear. In the Bible the right way is both compared with a highway and with a narrow path (Isa. 35:8; Matt. 7:14). However, knowing the goal gives us the possibility to search for the right track again and not to fall back into mere staying or straying—both of which impoverish human life. Living on the way is not the easy way of life that makes all things simple; however, accepting this “struggle of life” enriches life after all.

Humans are possibly glorious accidents. In a historical and scientific sense they are possibly accidental results of the evolutionary process. If we look to humans in this perspective, we cannot see the goal. Deriving a goal for human life from scientific sources is nonsense. However, humans are glorious accidents. They have the unique capacity to see further than what is just before their eyes. Ultimately, they have the capacity to thirst for the living God, for the one who is structurally prior to all physical reality. As such, that is not nonsense, but a fact. The invitation to live our life on the way to this living God is certainly an invitation to take a risk—I have not proven God’s existence, nor have I already seen the end of the way with my own eyes. But it is taking the risk of living human life in the fullest sense—of doing justice to our glorious side.

Still, there may be something of a riddle in human life. Why do we, even if we know the goal and know that it is good, still not always live in accordance with it?

Read further in:
Willem J. de Wit, On the Way to the Living God: A Cathartic Reading of Herman Bavinck and an Invitation to Overcome the Plausibility Crisis of Christianity (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2011). [Update: the book is no longer available in print but can be ordered as a Logos electronic edition or be downloaded as a pdf for free.]

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